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New Study Paints a Frightening Picture of the Cyber Security Landscape

By Bogdan Botezatu on Jan 13, 2017 | 1 Comment

A recent report by the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT), a cyber security think tank that acts as a conduit between the private sector, U.S. federal agencies and the legislative community, paints a frightening picture of the information security landscape.

The study, “Rise of the Machines: The Dyn Attack Was Just a Practice Run,” published in December 2016, shows just how vulnerable organizations are to the latest attack vectors. Corporate as well as government security executives need to understand what they’re up against when it comes to threats such as distributed denial of service (DDoS).

“The perfect storm is brewing that will pummel our nation’s public and private critical infrastructures with wave upon wave of devastating cyber attacks,” the report notes. “The Mirai malware offers malicious cyber actors an asymmetric quantum leap in capability; not because of sophistication or any innovative DDoS code, rather it offers a powerful development platform that can be optimized and customized according to the desired outcome of a layered attack by an unsophisticated adversary.”

Script kiddies and cyber criminal gangs are already drastically expanding their control over vulnerable Internet of Things (IoT) devices, which can be contracted in DDoS-for-Hire services by a virtually unlimited number of actors for use in an infinite variation of layered attack methods, the study says.

The brunt of the vulnerabilities on the Internet and in IoT devices rest with DNS, ISPs and IoT device manufacturers, “who negligently avoid incorporating security-by-design into their systems because they have not yet been economically incentivized and they instead choose to pass the risk and the impact onto unsuspecting end-users,” the report says. As a result of this, IoT botnets continue to grow and evolve.

As the adversarial landscape including nation state and mercenary bad actors, hacktivists, cyber-criminal gangs, script kiddies, and others continues to evolve, public and private data, intellectual property, and critical infrastructure continues to be pilfered and disrupted, ICIT says. The sectors at greatest risk for attacks include financial services, healthcare and energy.

The ICIT report presents a number of recommendations for organizations as they struggle to defend against the growing number of attacks. One is to develop actionable incident response plans. The key to an organization’s survival in an increasingly hostile threat landscape is preparedness and forethought.

“At the moment, organizations have few technical options to mitigate DDoS aside from anti-DDoS service, endpoint security, and filtering rules,” ICIT says. “Instead, organizations can improve their security posture by developing an actionable and practiced incident response plan or standard operating procedure (SOP) for their personnel to follow in the event of an attack.” These plans ensure a chain of communication and command, and preclude short-term actions that could harm the organization in the long-term.

Another step is to develop penetration tested IoT software and hardware featuring security-by-design. “Mirai demonstrates that rapidly developed or negligently developed IoT software and hardware can and will be leveraged for malicious purposes,” the report notes. “If IoT botnets are to be diminished and weakened in the future, IoT software and hardware must be developed with security-by-design.”

Device manufacturers do not include security-by-design due to lack of time, expertise and economic incentive. While some IoT and mobile software is developed in the U.S, most is developed or adapted abroad.

“Despite the possibility of regulatory measures from the United States and other nations, there is a strong likelihood that these constraints and the resulting manufacturer behaviors will remain unchanged,” ICIT says. “Rather than impose additional constraints on developers that will impact their already narrow profit margins, the cyber security community can build initiatives that promote the open source development and testing of IoT software.”

Training and policy are also critical. DDoS attacks are often distractions in multi-tiered cyber attacks, in which the attacker aims to weaken network defenses or divert critical resources away from another attack vector while establishing persistent presence on the network, ICIT says. In other cases, botnets are used to deliver ransomware and other malware onto network systems.

Cyber security controls and basic training can greatly limit the number of network assets susceptible to botnet infection, the group says. This includes training on how to ignore social engineering lures, policies enforcing hardened system authentication controls at every interface, defensive measures against compromised certificates, reliance on data execution prevention and data loss prevention services, and other essential cyber security controls.

Finally, organizations need to begin holding device manufacturers accountable for security flaws. Mirai and other malware that infect IoT devices are designed to exploit weak security, default credentials, and hard-coded credentials and settings, ICIT says. Some manufacturers have begun to require complex credentials to be created upon activation of devices, while many others continue to distribute devices whose default or hard-coded credentials leave the devices vulnerable to infection.

Government contractors and private sector companies have the ability to refuse to engage with manufacturers that do not incorporate security by design into devices, ICIT says.

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Author: Bogdan Botezatu

Bogdan Botezatu has spent the past 10 years as a Senior E-threat Analyst at Bitdefender. His areas of expertise include malware deobfuscation, detection, removal and prevention. Bogdan is the author of A History of Malware and Botnets 101. Before joining Bitdefender, he worked at one of Romania's largest and oldest universities as network administrator in charge of SecOps and policies.